Location: 8070 Ohio River Blvd., Emsworth. 412-761-2233. www.cafenottepgh.com
Hours: Lunch daily 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; tapas Tue.-Thu. 4-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 4-11 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Fare: International tapas
Atmosphere: Candlelit romance inside; patio party outside
Liquor: Full bar
Dining under the stars is great -- except when the weather isn't. And in Pittsburgh, especially this summer, you never know. Even the loveliest outdoor courtyard is a forlorn place to be when it's brutally hot. Or storming.
But there is a place where dining beneath the stars is always possible, even when the actual Milky Way is obscured by clouds or the haze of a heat wave. The barrel-vaulted ceiling of Café Notte, in Emsworth, has been painted black and studded with dozens of twinkling LED lights. With a bar we'd love to get to know better at one end of the room and a cozy wood-burning fireplace along the back wall, Café Notte's romantic interior almost made us wish for winter weather.
It's quite a transformation for a former Mobil gas station on suburban Ohio River Boulevard. But by the time it reaches Emsworth, the four-lane highway with its auto-strip development reverts to its original character: a pleasant, scenic road winding its way along the river. And with a fitness studio blocking the highway view toward the less-picturesque Camp Horne Road stoplight, the gas station's former parking and service area makes a spacious, pretty outdoor dining court, facing a copse of mature hardwoods across the street. It's furnished with metal tables and chairs with thick cushions.
We were thoroughly charmed before we even looked at the menu, which offers primarily "tapas" (including some with suggested wine pairings). We put "tapas" in quotations marks because, here as elsewhere, the word's meaning has been expanded far beyond its original Spanish definition, which might be translated loosely as "bar snacks." While tapas are eaten as appetizers before traditionally late dinners in Spain, many American restaurants have adapted the idea to one of grazing on several small plates in place of a large entrée. Tapas influences, too, are not just Spanish anymore. In Café Notte's case, they are decidedly international in scope, with particular emphasis on Asian flavors. We also noted that Café Notte's prices were a bit high for small plates, and wondered what the portions would be like.
They turned out to be sufficient for a table of four to share a bit more than a taste of each dish; a party of two would probably be sated with three or four plates. The preparations were sophisticated, and the presentations were uniformly lovely. But our first dish, Maui tuna tartare, was a disappointment, with watery diced fish and a thin, sugary sauce going by the title of ginger citrus coulis.
Fortunately, crispy duck wings came out next. These consisted simply of the upper joint, trimmed to look like small drumsticks (but larger than chicken wings), beautifully fried with a spiced crust as light as tempura, though it was not actually battered. The wings were simply presented, with just a drizzle of "our unique Asian glaze," the chef's not-so-syrupy take on duck sauce. This was a modest-looking dish that was a complete success.
The menu offers three preparations of filet mignon: Kalamata, blue cheese and classic. We had the last, and found it supple, juicy and surprisingly robust for mild tenderloin. It was served with a glossy demi-glace, a bit sweet for our tastes, and serviceable potatoes, but haricots verts which were overcooked and under-seasoned.
Café Notte also offers three versions of scallops: Spanish, Asian and mango. The Spanish scallops, represented as "colossal" on the menu, were not all that large, but three were served topped with a pico de gallo of minced tomatoes, sweet peppers and shallots. The shellfish were beautifully seared, and the light lime-cilantro vinaigrette complemented both them and the vegetables nicely. Our only quibble was that the tomatoes were surprisingly pale and bland for the absolute peak of the season.
Stuffed roasted peppers, on the other hand, were a deep, rich red in color, roasted to tender bittersweetness, and stuffed with ricotta seasoned with garlic, basil and other herbs. The result was rich and indulgent, almost like a savory-filled pastry.
Roasted pepper also made up the filling of the chicken roulade, along with spinach and goat cheese. What the chicken lacked in tenderness, the accompanying asparagus spears -- crisp arrows delivering deep green flavor, dressed in lemon buerre blanc -- made up for in excellence.
Café Notte is charming, if not cheap, and ambitious, if not flawless, in its execution of a tempting tapas menu.